The Brigidine Asylum Seeker project?

The Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project (BASP) is one of a number of projects in Australia that seek to support asylum seekers. The aims of the project can be summed up in three words- hospitality, networking and advocacy. The Brigidine sisters who operate the Project aim first to provide hospitality and practical support for asylum seekers. A second priority is advocating for the rights of asylum seekers while a third is to actively network with like-minded people on their behalf. They take as a motto the words of Christ as reported in the gospel of Matthew: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”.

How did the project begin?

Mandatory detention of asylum seekers who arrive without a visa began in Australia in 1992, in reaction to increasing numbers of Vietnamese, Chinese and Cambodian asylum seekers over the previous few years. At first Australian law said that they could not be detained for more than 273 days, but this limit was removed in 1994 and from then it became possible to detain asylum seekers indefinitely. Around the time of the Tampa incident (see inset) when the detention policy came to the attention of the public in vivid way, (followed that year by the notorious “children overboard” affair) the Brigidine Asylum Seeker project began in a very small way. Some Brigidine sisters began visiting asylum seekers at Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre (MIDA) and became aware that there were some people in detention who did not need to be there. With the payment of a bond they could be housed in the community while their case was being assessed. The party that paid the bond was obliged to provide the asylum seeker with housing.

The Brigidine sisters had a house close to their residence in Albert Park and they agreed to offer it as accommodation for asylum seekers. Since then they have been able to offer one more house  for asylum seekers who are awaiting the outcome of their application for refugee status. They found at first that the main needs were among single men, but they are now providing accommodation in one of the houses for single women. This provision of accommodation is alongside their visits to detention centres and advocacy on behalf of asylum seekers.

The Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project is involved with many other groups to lobby the government for change to the policy of mandatory detention. They also work with asylum seekers themselves helping them to access the processes to which they have a right. The project is financially supported only by donations, but is also supported by volunteers who help where and when they can.

Visiting the detention centres

The Brigidine sisters and the volunteers who work with them visit detention centres firstly to assure detainees that there are people in the Australian community who care about them. They see it as an important form of hospitality. When they hear a detainee’s story it may happen that there is some specific support they can offer. The person  may need a lawyer, for example, and there are lawyers who are prepared to offer their services pro bono for asylum seekers. There may be a need to help the detainee with letter writing, or ensuring that their papers are in order. If the detainee hasn’t yet been assessed it might mean lobbying the Immigration Department on their behalf.  A good deal of the time it is simply to make the point that there are people who are aware of their situation and who care about them.

What is the view of the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project on mandatory detention?

It is the view of BASP that detention is unnecessary and that asylum seekers should be given a bridging visa when they land on Australian shores, while ASIO and other checks are being carried out. BASP believes that it is correct to identify the people who seek asylum in Australia and to assess their claims, but they argue that mandatory detention should never be used. They believe that it is possible to quickly assess the asylum seeker’s claim and to release him or her into the community.

They see the first problem with mandatory detection in the fact that the people who seek asylum have not committed a crime, yet they are incarcerated as if they have. In addition, unlike a prison term, there is no fixed end to their incarceration. People in mandatory detention do not know how long it will take to assess their situation.  At first they feel hopeful, and then as time goes on, and nothing appears to happen, they often begin to despair. In the detention centres depression is very high, because of uncertainty about why they are being held and how long it will take. During 2009, it took ASIO an average of 37 days to complete security checks for asylum seekers who arrived by boat, but by October 2010, the security checks were taking an average of 57 days. In 2011 they take on average sixty six days to complete but often they take many months, even years.

An Asylum Seekers’ story.

A young man from Chad (a landlocked country in north Africa) came to Australia because his father was killed by government soldiers. The Chadian government accused his father of being part of an anti- government movement and, as a member of the Guraani tribe, of being against the Government.

He was 16 years old and the Government was forcing young men into the army. His mother and uncle sold whatever they could and arranged for him to take a plane out of the country. He knew he was going to Australia but he did not where Australia was or what it was like.

He landed in Australia without any English and without knowing anyone. Immigration intercepted him at the airport and he was taken to MITA in Broadmeadows, the first unaccompanied minor to be there. He spoke no English and his guards spoke no Arabic. They could only speak to each other through a telephone interpreter. We can only try to imagine the fear, loneliness, and isolation that this boy experienced during this time.

One of his visitors was from the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project. She persuaded the authorities to allow him to visit the BASP in Albert Park to learn English. Each time he came he was accompanied by a guard but it was a good time for him and he was a quick learner.

Fairly soon he received his visa and was allowed to leave the centre. However because he was still a minor  and still under the guardianship of the Minister for Immigration, the BASP offered him accommodation in their western suburbs house, believing that even though he had a visa he knew very little about living on his own in Australia. He remained a ward of the state and had a social worker until he was 18 years old. He considers himself very lucky to have made some friends who have been very willing to mentor him.

Other unaccompanied minors once, they reach 18 years old, have to set up their own accommodation when they get a visa. They currently receive $ 372 per fortnight and a rental allowance through Centre Link. This is extremely difficult to live on. Normally in Australia someone at this age would still be living at home. Young unaccompanied refugees need the support and mentoring of sympathetic Australians who are willing to spend time with them, to support them in finding jobs and to offer them friendship.